Bulgaria had sworn off Russian gas imports, but then its government collapsed. Now pro-Russian politicians are in power, which for the European Union means there is much more at stake than just energy supply.
The letter Z, a symbol of support for Putin’s war in Ukraine, has appeared on Bulgarian government buildings in Sofia. Last week, demonstrators fixed a Z in black tape to the entrance of the Ministry of Energy’s headquarters.
They were protesting their government’s announcement that it would reopen negotiations with Russia about importing gas – although Bulgaria had declared public support for Kyiv and subsequently stopped all Russian imports. “Putin’s gas is a trap,” one of the placards reads.
These scenes have been growing more common in the Bulgarian capital since the reformist government led by Prime Minister Kiril Petkov was ousted last month in a no-confidence vote. Petkov had pledged to tackle corruption and taken a strong stance against Russia's invasion. But his coalition government fell after just seven months in office when an ally quit.
The country is currently being run by an interim government under pro-Russian President Rumen Radev.
Under the Kremlin's influence
But the protesters’ concerns go far beyond the accusation that their country will be supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine if it resumes buying gas from the Russian state-owned energy corporation Gazprom. Acting Minister of Energy Rosen Hristov recently said this was “unavoidable” and that otherwise the country would not survive the winter.
In sticking the letter Z to the wall of the Ministry of Energy, the protesters are accusing their government of being under the Kremlin’s direct influence. Politicians from the ousted government agree, and with good reason. Petkov’s government, which was in power from December until August, pledged to fight against the widespread corruption in Bulgaria. It offered the public proof that high-ranking politicians and their colleagues had been receiving Russian money for years, which influenced their decisions to make the country dependent on Russian gas.
Bulgaria is struggling to choose its path: democracy or cronyism, pro-Western or pro-Russian
The claims led to Russian diplomats being kicked out of the country on suspicion of espionage. Moscow was clearly enraged. In April, Bulgaria was – alongside Poland – the first EU country to have Russia turn off the gas supply completely.
In response, Petkov’s government ordered tankers of liquid gas from the United States and sped up work on a pipeline intended to transport gas from Azerbaijan to Bulgaria and the rest of Europe. But then the precarious five-party coalition, led by Petkov’s party We Continue the Change, broke down.The fight against corruption and cronyism among politicians, the mafia and dodgy businesses had garnered too many opponents.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is welcomed by Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov in Sofia on June 11, 2022.
Public opinion split
In early October, Bulgaria will once again hold elections, for the fourth time in less than two years. The country is struggling to choose its path: democracy or cronyism, pro-Western or pro-Russian. For the EU, there is a lot at stake. Bulgaria could play a key role in Europe’s energy supply – if its government is wiling. And another potential headache for Brussels is the possibility that Bulgaria could follow Hungary’s example in opposing strict sanctions on Russia.
However, unlike in Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán won re-election with his pro-Putin policies, public opinion in Bulgaria is split. That means campaigning politicians need to approach the Russia question carefully. Bulgaria traditionally has strong cultural ties to Russia, and the Kremlin has aggressively targeted the country with propaganda.
At the same time, citizens have been protesting against the cronyism that has held it back and made it the smallest economy in the EU. Tihomir Bezlov, a Senior Analyst at the Center for the Study of Democracy in Sofia, has been monitoring public opinion and Russian influence in Bulgaria for years. He says that although Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has met with “severe disapproval” among Bulgarian people, studies show that pro- and anti-Russian sentiment are “almost equally” represented within Bulgarian society.
That is surely why President Radev and the acting ministers chosen by him have held back from making explicitly pro-Russian statements. Bulgaria is still quietly sending Soviet-era munitions to Ukraine via Poland. However, analyst Bezlov assumes that the current cabinet has “lines of communication” to Moscow that are “not public.”
Ousted Prime Minister Petkov is standing for re-election. The 42-year-old businessman studied at Harvard and went into politics to fight corruption. On his campaign tour, his main focus is not geopolitics. Instead he is concentrating on his party’s core priorities: democracy, jobs and how the economic situation affects everyday citizen — although that has a lot to do with independent energy supply.
Breaking Moscow's pipeline monopoly
In a phone call, Petkov outlines how from his first day in office, his government prioritized work on finishing a pipeline that would connect Bulgaria to the Trans Adriatic Pipeline, which transports gas from Azerbaijan across Turkey to Greece and Italy. From 2023, the plan is for this pipeline to supply other countries in southern Europe with liquid gas from Greece, which experts say would break Russia’s monopoly in the region.
According to Petkov, the previous Bulgarian government “delayed the pipeline for years and constantly came up with new excuses for why it wasn’t finished.” But he says it could be operational already: “It has been completed and tested.” However, Minister of Energy Hristov claims that it is not yet functional and that agreements with Azerbaijan are unexpectedly having to be renegotiated.The ships bringing liquid gas ordered from the U.S. are suddenly being reconsidered as well.
What if the next government allows Bulgaria to be under the thumb of Gazprom once more.
Work progressed much more quickly on the far shorter Balkan Stream pipeline, which transports Russian gas to Hungary and Serbia: it took three years to build and became operational in 2021. “Bulgaria doesn’t get a single molecule of gas from this pipeline. It only serves to bypass Ukraine,” says Petkov. He estimates the project received €1.5 billion of public funds.
When his party started tidying up the government buildings in Sofia early this year, Petkov says they found a brand new SUV in the garage of an advisor to his predecessor, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, paid for by the Russian company that operates the pipeline. “That is the most expensive car in all of Bulgaria. It cost our taxpayers €1.5 billion for this useless pipeline.”
A mural depicting Vladimir Putin in Sofia, Bulgaria.
An alliance between Sofia and Budapest
According to polls, Petkov’s reformist party is neck and neck with Borissov’s GERB party. But each side has only around a quarter of the votes. The rest are split across the political spectrum, among small reformist parties, socialists and openly anti-Western alliances.
“It would have huge consequences for Europe if the next government destroys everything Petkov has worked for and allows Bulgaria to be under the thumb of Gazprom once more,” says Bulgaria expert Jakub Bielamowicz, an analyst at the Institute of New Europe. He suspects the reformist government would have had an easier task if the war in Ukraine hadn’t caused such a stark polarization of opinion in Bulgaria.
Now the EU is facing the prospect of a possible alliance between Sofia and Budapest that could block sanctions against Moscow. “It is unlikely that Bulgaria would be as openly pro-Russian as Hungary currently is,” says Bielamowicz. “But the government in Sofia could certainly find ways to delay or obstruct measures.”
And that is precisely what the EU and Ukraine don’t need.